Monday, September 12, 2011

The President Needs A Course In Civility, Civics

“The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do.  For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't.  But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day.  And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy?  So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?”
—Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Boy, I’m sure glad we finally got to hear from the President, although coming out of Thursday’s address to a joint session of Congress I’m left wondering when he’s going to make the speech on job creation we’ve been told was coming.

There will be ample discussion from all the usual corners about the substance of Obama’s plan, such as it is; how it’s yet another half-trillion dollars in still-failing stimulus, how no matter how many times the President says “it’s paid for” he has yet to explain how that’s so, how it’s unlikely to result in any significant job creation any time soon if at all, yadda yadda yadda.  What I want to do is take a look at a couple of aspects of the President’s speech as they relate to our constitutional republic.

To begin with, the tenor of the address and even the juvenile and transparent scheduling debacle reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of, and disrespect for, how our federal government is supposed to be structured.  Last time I looked, we had three separate and co-equal branches of government, each with its own Article creating it and establishing its scope; the office of President isn’t even the first branch listed (that’d be Congress in Article I).  Yet as I have discussed here, here, and here this President routinely behaves as though he is a CEO—read:  dictator—with the members of the other branches serving as his subordinates like so many corporate vice presidents.

The President didn’t need a joint session of Congress to present his plan.  Assuming he actually has a plan with any substance to it, he could have submitted a draft bill at any time over the last 900-some-odd days he’s been in office.  And he didn’t need a joint session of Congress to get a national TV audience to convey his message; Presidents have been making TV addresses from the Oval Office for 40 years.  No, by purporting to unilaterally schedule a joint session for him to speak, doing it on basically no notice—does everything with this administration have to be an immediate emergency, and given the apparent urgency of the matter could he really not at least have started the scheduling discussion before he left to spend a month on Martha’s Vineyard?—then using that platform to give Congress a public dressing-down, Obama deliberately set out to embarrass them like an abusive schoolteacher.

It isn’t the first time he’s done this.  Recall Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address, during which he chastised the Supreme Court for its campaign finance ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  It is becoming all-too routine for this President to publicly demean and belittle the other branches of government by convening formal governmental occasions that demand a certain respect and decorum and then use them to bully and embarrass guests (in the case of the Supreme Court) or his hosts (in the case of Congress).  It’s at best uncivil, and it’s at worst faux-imperial.

Furthermore, the President’s tone and message in scolding Congress ignore what Congress’ job is.  To hear Obama tell it, because there is an economic crisis and the American people are frustrated, Congress should do what he wants.  But Congress doesn’t work for Obama, nor does any one congressman work for the “American People.”  Each member of Congress works for the 700,000-something people in his or her district.  And as I've posted before, some of us disagree with Obama’s approach to the economy, and we’ve sent our representatives to the District with all-but-express instructions to stop him.  So when they don’t go along with him, they’re not “playing politics,” and they’re not “putting party before the American people”; they’re doing their job.

I seem to recall someone bearing a striking resemblance to the President telling us that “elections have consequences.”

At least some of the President’s proposals, even in broad outline, also demonstrate a misunderstanding of the scope of Congress’ charge under the Constitution.  Consider, for example, Obama’s proposals to spend federal money renovating schools and providing financial aid to local governments to avoid teacher layoffs.  Now, I am all for education.  I agree that teaching our kids is among our greatest responsibilities and that as a society we don’t place as high a priority on it as we should.  I will even concede for purposes of this discussion that these two proposals will “create” jobs.

But no matter how good an idea it might be, no matter how necessary it might be, no matter how badly you might want it, none of that means the United States Congress is authorized to do it under our Constitution.

Contrary to popular belief, Congress does not have unlimited power to do anything it deems a good idea, or anything the President demands it do.  As I posted last week, Article I, Section 8 lists the specific powers Congress has, and none of them come anywhere close to permitting Congress to provide federal funding for school infrastructure or teacher salaries.  It’s just not there.

Certainly, I’m aware that Congress in fact does spend money on these kinds of programs, and has for a long time.  But it is a dangerous, dangerous road for us to continue to ignore the very clear limitations the Constitution was intended to place on the scope of federal power.

Professor Obama might do well to dust off his copy and maybe crack the binding.  Maybe review a little Emily Post while he's at it.

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